American Modernism at Mid-Century: The Work of Morris Davidson is the first comprehensive survey of a little known yet important twentieth-century American artist, presenting new research into the significance of his life’s work and using it as a lens to view many iterations of abstraction practiced from the 1930s through the 1970s.
On view in the Vanderbilt Fine Arts Gallery now through September 17, the exhibition is the fourth in a series of annual partnerships between the Fine Arts Gallery and the Department of History of Art. The exhibition is curated by Aiden Layer’19, Nancy Lin’18, Ryan Logie’17, Cecilia March’18, Kittredge Shamamian’17, Elliot Taillon’17, and Nina Vaswani’18, who were students in the “Exhibiting Historical Art” class, taught this year by Kevin Murphy, Andrew W. Mellon Chair in the Humanities and chair of the Department of History of Art.
Morris Davidson (1898–1979) was an abstract painter, teacher, and writer with expansive interests that covered a wide range of approaches, and indeed a tenacious commitment to, abstract painting. On the tension between making money through portraiture and the pursuit of more “serious” painting, the artist wrote in the 1930s, “I had to get back to Cubist and semi-abstract works, but when my bell rang I could quickly put such painting in the extra room so that a portrait possibility would not be frightened off by the strange images of my experimental painting.” Seeking a resolution to this tension in later years, Davidson turned to teaching and writing for regular income. The freedom this allowed for his experiments in abstraction, creating works with greater attention to form, line, and color than subject, shows increasingly in his paintings of the following decades.
Davidson’s career as a painter spanned the decades in which American artists experimented with a wide variety of artistic expression—from social realism to abstraction. Davidson followed these trends in his own work as he studied art in Baltimore, at the Art Institute of Chicago, with painters in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and eventually in Paris. In an oral history conducted with Davidson by the Archives of American Art in 1971, the artist described the decisive impact that cubism and other modernist movements had on his thinking and painting. Along with many other mid-century artists, Davidson, in the course of his career, moved away from the depiction of identifiable landscapes or cityscapes and toward a greater degree of abstraction. The exhibit highlights the mature works of this post-war period.
Research for this exhibition and its companion catalogue demonstrate that many of the paintings included were first exhibited at these shows during the artist’s lifetime. Student research on the paintings and catalogue essays by noted art historians, Margaret Laster and Melissa Renn, bring Davidson’s paintings and importance to the art circles of mid-century into today’s light.
As Kevin Murphy states in the catalogue introduction, “That moment—from the interwar period through the 1960s—when Morris Davidson addressed the challenge of abstraction amid the appearance of many permutations of it in New York and Provincetown, is the focus of this [project].” The exhibition and catalogue together aim to construct a larger understanding of the many expressions of abstract painting in the United States at mid-century while expanding appreciation for this hitherto largely unrecognized artist.
The Fine Arts Gallery is located in Cohen Memorial Hall, 1220 21st Avenue South, on the western edge of the Peabody College campus. Gallery hours from April 28 to August 22 are Tuesday through Friday 12-4 pm, Saturdays 1-5 pm, closed Sundays and Mondays. Gallery hours from August 23 through September 17 are Monday through Friday 11 am to 4 pm, weekends 1-5 pm. Admission is free and open to the public.
Thanks to a loan from a private collection that spans the entirety of Davidson’s career, the exhibition presents a body of evidence that has allowed the student curators to be the first to reconstruct Davidson’s development as a painter, demonstrating that his move from a social-realist idiom in his early work to abstraction by mid-century was informed by his contact with some of the foremost painters of his day.
Support has been provided by the Vice Provost for Academic and Strategic Affairs, the College of Arts and Science, the Department of History of Art, the Andrew W. Mellon Chair in the Humanities, the Ewers Gift for Fine Art, and the Rosenfeld-Davidson Family Archive.
For more information, please visit the gallery’s website at http://www.vanderbilt.edu/gallery.
***Paintings by Morris Davidson (American, 1898–1979) from the Rosenfeld/Davidson Family Collection: Rockport [Bearskin Neck], watercolor on paper, 1939; Untitled [Still Life with Red Pitcher], oil on canvas, n.d.: and Untitled, oil on canvas, 1961.